Chef's hat

The chef's hat, or toque blanche (French for "white hat"), dates back to the 16th century when hats were common in many trades. Different heights of hats indicate rank within a kitchen. The symbolism of the folded pleats of the toque are now said to represent that many different ways a chef knows to cook an egg. The traditional hat or toque is probably the most distinguishing and recognisable of Chef’s uniform and probably also causes the most debate. Chefs as far back as the 16th century are said to have worn them. One story has it that it originated in the old kitchens of castles and fine restaurants of Europe, there were no ventilation systems as we know them. The condensation and grease accumulated thick and heavy on the ceilings.

To protect the top of the head from falling grease, the chefs would have the housekeepers starch up old sections of sheets. The sections were then wrapped and formed into a tall cylinder shape with a pouch at the top. Cloths and rags were also placed inside to buffer the absorbed falling grease.

Another story has it that when a royal cook in the employ of King Henry VIII started going bald. Henry found a hair in his soup, had the cook beheaded, and ordered the next Chef to start wearing a hat. Some say it can be traced to the 7th century, when Chefs were considered learned men. Learned men were often persecuted and often took refuge in the local church, donning clergy costumes, including hats, as a disguise. Not wanting to incur the wrath of God, they started wearing white hats instead of the black hats worn by Greek Orthodox priests. Along similar lines it said that when the Catholic’s were persecuted in the UK during the reign of Henry 8th, the catholic priests went into hiding. Many of them finding work in kitchens, so as to retain some link with their beliefs they took to wearing hats based on the Bishop’s mitre.

But there are other theories regarding the hat’s history. One source states the hat may have evolved from the stocking cap (casque a meche) worn by French chefs throughout the years. The color of the casque a meche indicated the chef’s rank. Another has it they come from the ancient Assyrians. Since one of the more common ways to assassinate anyone was to poison their food, Chefs were chosen carefully and for the most part treated very well, often holding rank in the King’s court.

Legend has it that the Chef’s high position entitled him to wear a “crown” of sorts, in the same shape as the king’s, though made out of cloth. The crown-shaped ribs of the royal head dress became the pleats of the Toque, originally sewn and later stiffened with starch. Of the pleats, the most widely circulated legend about the hat appears to be one concerning the number of pleats. It was regarded that any Chef, worthy of the name, could cook an egg at least one hundred ways; therefore the hat should have one hundred pleats said to represent this.

Sometime in the mid-1800s, chef Marie-Antoine Careme decided white was a more appropriate color for toques as it indicated cleanliness in the kitchen. Careme also believed the hats should be of different heights to indicate rank. Cooks wore shorter hats than chefs. Reportedly Careme’s hat was 18 inches tall.

Interestingly, the number of pleats in a chef’s hat is also a status symbol. Many toques have exactly 100 pleats, supposedly the number of ways a chef can prepare an egg.